Utah on Immigration: 'We aren't Arizona'

Business leaders and the Mormon Church helped one of the nation's most conservative states enact a compromise immigration package.
by | March 29, 2011
 

By Daniel C. Vock, Stateline Staff Writer

Less than a year ago, Utah business leaders worried that their state would follow in Arizona's controversial footsteps by passing tough new laws to crack down on illegal immigration. Already, there were signs that a divisive debate -- the kind that led to mass protests, boycotts and lawsuits in Phoenix -- was shaping up in Utah, too.

"Last summer, it was a foregone conclusion that Utah was going to do exactly what Arizona had done," says Marty Carpenter, a spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. That worried many of the chamber's members.

They feared Arizona-style legislation would stall the state's economy before it really got a chance to recover from the recession. In addition, it might undermine the international goodwill Utah built by hosting the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Passing a law targeting unauthorized immigrants, Carpenter says, risked sending the message that Utah "was no longer a friendly and welcoming place."

In July, a pair of state employees secretly leaked a list of 1,300 unauthorized immigrants to reporters and police. They demanded that the people on the list be deported. The list included names, addresses, birthdates and Social Security numbers. It even included the due date of a pregnant woman.

The same month, three Utah legislators, including the House speaker, toured the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona as part of their effort to prepare legislation based on Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, empowering local police to question residents about their immigration status. When sponsors introduced the Arizona-style proposal on the steps of the Utah Capitol, dozens of protesters crashed the press conference and sang "We Shall Overcome."

In the end, though, Utah avoided the acrimony that Arizona experienced. The state's leaders changed direction. They followed the lead of business, religious groups and others that drafted a 227-word document, introduced in November, called the Utah Compact. Nearly 100 people from dozens of groups collaborated on the immigrant-friendly statement. Its effect became clear this month, when Governor Gary Herbert signed four bills that follow the contours of the agreement. The new laws give local police more power to enforce immigration laws, but they also create guest-worker programs designed to add to the state's labor supply.

Lingering concerns

Although it had plenty of supporters, the Utah Compact benefited greatly from the backing of business leaders and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "The Utah Compact changed the whole tone of the conversation of the Legislature," says Tony Yapias, a radio host and director of Proyecto Latino de Utah. It was especially significant, he says, because Utah Republicans embraced the compromise while GOP officials in other states were focusing on hard-line enforcement-only approaches.

Not everyone is on board with what Herbert calls the "Utah Solution." Some local Latino activists backed a two-week boycott to protest provisions that allow police to enforce immigration law.

On the other side, state Representative Stephen Sandstrom believes the new laws are too soft. He emphasizes that the Utah Compact never mentions immigrants in the country illegally. "Families are an essential component of our community," he wrote in a February op-ed published in the Provo Daily Herald. "The largest demographic of illegal immigrants is males from the ages of 18 to 35. These individuals have broken up their own families by coming here and leaving their families in their country of origin."

Conversely, the Immigration Policy Center, a national group that backs immigrant-friendly legislation, complained that "in light of the heavy handed approach to enforcement and the fact that a state-administered guest worker program is clearly outside the authority of the state, what was passed by the Utah Legislature is not a model for future state legislation."

Entering federal territory

The package contains provisions calling for the state to set up guest worker programs -- one for the estimated 110,000 unauthorized immigrants already in Utah and another to meet future demand for workers with residents from the Mexican state of Nuevo León. Neither program would start for another two years, and the state likely would need a waiver from the federal government before launching them.

The package does include a watered-down version of the Arizona law enforcement language. But it targets only those unauthorized immigrants who are arrested for serious misdemeanors or felonies. Even so, opponents charge that the law is too far-reaching. They predict federal courts will strike it down, for the same reason judges placed a hold on the more controversial aspects of Arizona's law. Other observers in Utah say the new law is not much of a change from current practice.

Either way, Utah clearly is treading on traditionally federal territory. But while proponents of the Arizona law thumb their noses at Washington, proponents of the Utah law insist they want to cooperate with the feds.

"The federal government is our first line of defense. We're not trying to take that away from them," says state Representative Bill Wright, who sponsored the guest worker legislation. But he says the federal government should join states that are looking to address immigration. "This great divide we have between the states and the federal government will lead us nowhere."

The Obama administration declined to comment on the Utah legislation specifically. "The federal government is monitoring, as it regularly does, this type of legislative activity in the states," says Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Competing impulses

When it comes to immigration, Utah long has forged its own path. Charlie Morgan, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University who studies Utah immigrants, says the state is often pulled by the competing impulses of showing compassion and enforcing the rule of law.

The state is predominantly Mormon, and the Mormon Church has placed a high priority on preventing immigrant families from being separated. Large numbers of Mormons also have served as missionaries around the world, which helps them identify with immigrants in Utah, Morgan explains.

But at the same time, Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country, and the conservative base is formidable. Last year, for example, Republicans turned against U.S. Senator Robert Bennett in his reelection bid, partly because of his moderate immigration stance.

The tension between the two impulses has shaped Utah's policies toward immigrants, even before this year's accord. Last year, Herbert signed a law requiring Utah businesses to use a federal database to verify that their new hires had permission to work in the United States. Again, though, the Utah law did not go as far as an earlier Arizona measure. Utah legislators gave businesses more than a year to comply and spelled out no penalties if they did not go along.

The competing impulses also help explain Utah's unique policy for letting unauthorized immigrants drive legally. It is one of only three states (along with New Mexico and Washington State) that give them that permission, but it is the only one to give them a unique card -- instead of a normal driver's license -- to do so. The new package of immigration laws now will require those drivers to submit their fingerprints and undergo criminal background checks.

Wright, the sponsor of the guest-worker bill, describes the new law as pragmatic. "It is a solution for the problem we have right now," he says. "It probably isn't the solution for the future, and it doesn't take us back to where we'd like to be, but we have to have some vehicle to get there."

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